Disagreement persists on funding for NJ open space

TRENTON, N.J. - December 6, 2013

Though public polls show a majority of voters support the government's effort to continue buying available land to keep it from being developed, they are divided over how to fund it. There's no consensus from lawmakers either, in a state where money is tight and the annual public pension payment is about to balloon to more than $2 billion. Gov. Chris Christie also has been pushing for a tax cut, which would put more pressure on resources.

Sen. Bob Smith, who heads the Senate Environmental Committee, introduced a resolution Thursday that would provide funding for 30 years by dedicating a portion of sales tax revenue already collected.

The Democrat's resolution asks voters to change the constitution to direct a maximum of $200 million a year to acquire open space.

The proposal caps the amount at 2.4 percent of the sales tax received or $200 million, whichever is less, to address concerns previously voiced by lawmakers in both parties.

A version of the sales tax proposal passed in the Senate but stalled in the Assembly amid concerns that it would drain too much money from the general fund, which pays for other essential programs and services.

A resolution introduced last week in the Assembly would ask voters to approve $200 million in borrowing for open space.

Advocates of this approach say it would give lawmakers more time to identify a long-term funding source.

Even environmental advocates are divided.

Keep It Green, a coalition of conservation, agriculture and historic preservation groups, wants long-term funding rather than the patchwork of borrowing that has funded open space purchases for much of the past 50 years. Only once, in the 1998, were voters presented with a 10-year funding option, which they approved. It too relied on a portion of the sales tax.

The New Jersey Sierra Club, on the other hand, supports the borrowing option. It says environmental programs such as clean energy could be further depleted if Christie was forced to balance the state budget while sending around $200 million to the open space fund.

Outgoing Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver identified the issue as a priority for the lame-duck session of the Legislature.

In order to be placed on the ballot, a resolution needs legislative approval by a simple majority for two straight years or approval by a supermajority in a single year. Christie's signature is not required.

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